Building a Dynasty: The New England Patriots
Chris TripodiDraft Analyst Writer
Fresh off a Super Bowl LI victory, Draft Analyst looks at the Patriots' top contributors on both sides of the football with a focus on their draft positions. From first-round picks to undrafted steals, New England's roster has it all, and there are definite trends that have emerged throughout the years.
Chris Tripodi looks at the draft history of New England's offense, while Colin Littlefield tackles the defense.
Tom Brady - Round 6, 2000 (Michigan)
Brady's resume speaks for itself. His college coaches didn't even want to play him -- he didn't take over the full-time role over Drew Henson as a senior until halfway through the season -- and nobody thought he was worth a top-195 pick, but he has turned into arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time. While the deep ball was never Brady’s strength, his Super Bowl LI comeback against the Atlanta Falcons summarizes everything that makes him a generational quarterback. If he's not the best draft pick of all-time, I'm not sure who is.
Jimmy Garoppolo - Round 2, 2014 (Eastern Illinois)
Garoppolo is actually the Patriots' quarterback with the highest draft pedigree; the question, of course, is how much longer he'll be in New England entering the final year of his rookie contract. Brady's suspension could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Pats, who should get more back in a trade than the No. 62 overall pick they spent on Garoppolo -- thanks to his solid performance early this season -- in addition to the three years they got out of him as a backup quarterback. Quite the win for New England for a pick that many questioned, as some were not sold on the small-school Garoppolo.
Jacoby Brissett - Round 3, 2016 (N.C. State)
The Patriots' confidence in Brissett to take over as their backup quarterback is a nice luxury for the team to have considering Garoppolo's contract situation. Brissett came out of college with the arm, size, touch and mobility to be an intriguing prospect, and he landed in arguably the NFL's best quarterback room to hone his craft. He didn't throw a touchdown pass in either of his two starts this season but also took care of the ball. Considering New England has only drafted two quarterbacks in the past five years -- and neither in the top 60 -- the results have been good.
LeGarrette Blount - UDFA, 2010 (Oregon)
Blount was a talented prospect who fell out of the draft due mainly to off-field issues; he was suspended for much of his senior season after infamously punching a Boise State player. New England acquired Blount from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 and watched him score a career-high seven TDs, but he left for Pittsburgh the following offseason. Now in his second stint with the team, Blount has provided the power element in the Patriots backfield and was a key part of their 3-1 start this season before taking a back seat the rest of the way -- he had as many 20-carry games in the team's first three games as he did in the final 13 games (three). Even still, he rushed for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns on a bargain contract.
Dion Lewis - Round 5, 2011 (Pittsburgh)
Lewis is another back who has bounced around the league, getting traded from Philadelphia to Cleveland in 2013, breaking his leg and getting released the following offseason. The Patriots got him on a futures contract in December 2014 and he started the next season hot before tearing his ACL in November. A dynamic college running back who broke the Big East freshman records of Tony Dorsett and LeSean McCoy, his size was the biggest reason he fell until the third day of the draft. Now listed at 5-8, 195 pounds, Lewis didn't quite pick up where he left off in 2015 this year, but he did score a rushing, receiving and return touchdown in the Divisional Round against the Houston Texans. He'll count a little less than $1.5 million against the cap next year.
James White - Round 4, 2014 (Wisconsin)
The hero of Super Bowl LI is also the only running back the Patriots have drafted over the past five seasons -- and he rewarded them handsomely with a performance fitting of a Super Bowl MVP. White broke out as an all-purpose threat out of the backfield during his senior season at Wisconsin, and the Patriots thought he was a good enough fit in their offense to deem him worthy of a top-150 draft pick -- high praise from a team that doesn't spend draft capital at the position. He has been productive in spurts through three seasons, but his Super Bowl performance alone has carved him a spot in New England lore.
Julian Edelman - Round 7, 2009 (Kent State)
Two of the Patriots' most important offensive players -- Brady and Edelman -- were drafted in the final two rounds of the NFL Draft. Edelman was a dual-threat college quarterback who threw for 1,820 yards and rushed for 1,370 as a senior, but he's proven to be a sure-handed receiver with skills in the open field as an NFL player. He essentially played the Wes Welker role behind the injury-prone veteran early in his career while helping on returns until a 105-catch season in 2013 earned him a long-term role as an offensive centerpiece. Not bad for a draft prospect many considered to be a gimmick who would be used mainly in the Wildcat and on returns.
Chris Hogan - UDFA, 2011 (Monmouth)
Hogan was a practice-squad player for most of his first two seasons before settling in as a productive player with the Bills. The Patriots stole him away from Buffalo with a three-year, $12 million offer sheet in restricted free agency, and Hogan produced a career-high 680 yards on 38 catches during the regular season. His nine-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown game against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship helped propel the Pats to the Super Bowl, and he was yet another somewhat-unheralded player to make a big impact on New England's playoff run in 2016.
Danny Amendola - UDFA, 2008 (Texas Tech)
A player who drew obvious comparisons to the aforementioned Welker due to similar size, playing at the same college and going undrafted, Amendola's career has been a far cry from Welker's. Like James White, he has been productive in spurts -- particularly when filling Edelman's role in the offense -- and had a big Super Bowl LI, catching eight passes for 78 yards and a touchdown along with the game-tying two-point conversion. Even if Amendola isn't Welker, he has enjoyed a nice career as a UDFA, even if he struggles with injuries at times.
Malcolm Mitchell - Round 4, 2016 (Georgia)
The Patriots' track record with receivers is poor; they've drafted six receivers in the past five years, two remain on the roster and none have established themselves as NFL stalwarts. Mitchell put a lot of good play on film this season and seems to be a good bet to buck that negative trend. Another Day 3 product who was instrumental in New England's Super Bowl LI victory, Mitchell caught six passes for 70 yards and did a great job keeping the chains moving in the second half. He fell in the draft due to a lack of college production and knee concerns, but he showed promise on film and looks to be delivering on that so far, a welcome sight for a team that has struggled to hit at receiver since Edelman.
Rob Gronkowski - Round 2, 2010
Gronk's laundry list of injuries is as well known by now as his love to party, but there's no questioning his effectiveness when on the field. He fell to the second round in 2010 after missing his senior season with a back injury, but his obvious physical upside was too enticing for the Patriots to pass on. They've been rewarded with the game's best tight end, even if he misses a few games each season and wasn't a part of their 2016 playoff run. The Patriots offense runs at a different level when Gronk is healthy.
Martellus Bennett - Round 2, 2008
Two years before Gronk came out, the Dallas Cowboys selected Bennett one pick ahead (No. 61 overall) of where Gronk would go two seasons later (No. 62 overall). Their paths eventually crossed as the Pats traded a fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for Bennett and a sixth-rounder, perhaps feeling like they needed better insurance for their star tight end. Bennett proved invaluable to New England as both a blocker and a red-zone threat whileGronk suffered through an injury-plagued campaign, and the promise Bennett showed at Texas A&M has carried over into a productive NFL career.
Nate Solder - Round 1, 2011 (Colorado)
The lone first-round pick among New England's key offensive players, Solder has played at least 15 games in five of his six NFL seasons. A homegrown Patriot better as a pass protector than a run blocker, Solder has been a very solid blind-side protector for Tom Brady even if he's not a Pro Bowl-caliber player. His height, length and movement skills were his most-coveted traits out of college, and they've served him well through six NFL seasons.
Marcus Cannon - Round 5, 2011 (TCU)
Cannon may have been drafted sooner if he weren't diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma before the draft. Six years later, he's a Second Team All-Pro coming off a great season and a five-year, $32.5 million in-season extension. With 2009 second-round pick Sebastian Vollmer's contract up after the season, Cannon looks to be New England's right tackle for the foreseeable future, an opportunity he earned by coming back strong after struggling with a toe injury in 2015.
Joe Thuney - Round 3, 2016 (N.C. State)
Thuney won the starting left guard spot in camp and never looked back as one of the season's top rookie lineman. Despite drafting two guards in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft (Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson), New England was intrigued by his awareness and versatility -- Thuney played all five spots along the line with the Wolfpack. He's settled in nicely as an NFL guard and looks like another solid starter scooped outside the top 75, as he was drafted 78th overall.
Shaq Mason - Round 4, 2015 (Georgia Tech)
Coming from the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense, Mason was billed as a powerful run blocker who lacked experience as a pass-blocker but possessed the tools to eventually succeed as an NFL starter. He started 10 games for New England in 2015 before starting every game this year and was a big part of New England's struggles running the ball up the middle this season. Mason still has consistency issues that show up from time to time and the Patriots will look for improvement in his third season in 2017, but he hasn't been a disaster. New England having drafted and developed four of its starting offensive lineman is a trend in terms of draft capital, as the Patriots have drafted seven offensive linemen in the past five seasons, tied for their second most at any position -- with linebacker -- behind defensive back.
David Andrews - UDFA, 2015 (Georgia)
Andrews impressed New England starting in training camp of his rookie season, and Bryan Stork's placement on injured reserve allowed Andrews to start through Week 10 as a rookie and finish in the top two of Pro Bowl voting at the center position. He beat out Stork in camp this season and while his 6-3, 295-pound frame causes issues with bigger interior linemen -- a common knock on him entering the draft -- his athleticism has been his best friend at the NFL level. Considering what the Pats paid in draft capital for Andrews, he has been a nice surprise.
Chris Long - Round 1, 2008 (Virginia)
Going into the draft, scouts praised Long for his motor, technique when taking on offensive linemen and overall quickness. When compared to the other big-name defensive end in the draft, New York Jets bust Vernon Gholston, Long was thought to be the safer pick. In his first year with the Rams, he made the NFL All-Rookie team. He was released by the Rams in February of 2016 and picked up by the Patriots in March of the same year.
Trey Flowers - Round 4, 2015 (Arkansas)
Entering the draft, scouts liked Flowers' character, on-field awareness and ability to use his long arms to get extension. Flowers was thought to be a power defensive end, as his athleticism left a little to be desired. He was able to sack Matt Ryan for a 12-yard loss in Super Bowl LI, which eventually led the Falcons to punt the ball and allow the Patriots to embark on the game-tying drive to send the game into overtime and win.
Jabaal Sheard - Round 2, 2011 (Pittsburgh)
Scouts liked Sheard's overall quickness, constant high effort and explosiveness, but it was thought that he needed to improve the strength part of his game. In his rookie year with the Browns, Sheard was voted to the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team. He signed a two-year deal with the Patriots in March of 2015.
Alan Branch - Round 2, 2007 (Michigan)
Scouts praised Branch's size, foot and hand quickness and strength. Some believed he played with too high of a pad level. After being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals with later stops in Seattle and Buffalo, Branch signed a one-year deal with the Patriots in October of 2014 and re-signed with a two-year deal in March of 2015.
Malcom Brown - Round 1, 2015 (Texas)
Scouts lauded Brown’s quickness off the ball, powerful leg drive and ability to violently disengage blockers, but Brown’s technique throughout his game was said to inconsistent. He was voted to the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie team last season and has been a big part of New England's interior run defense.
Shea McClellin - Round 1, 2012 (Boise State)
Out of Boise State, McClellin was coveted for his instincts, quickness and rush abilities and was projected to be a pass-rush focused that could drop into coverage if needed. He signed a three-year deal with the Patriots in March of 2016 after his rookie contract with the Chicago Bears expired.
Dont'a Hightower - Round 1, 2012 (Alabama)
Scouts praised Hightower for his run-stopping ability, strength, agility and versatility. He needed to improve his tackling technique, however, as he often threw his body at players instead of wrapping up. Hightower was voted to the 2017 Pro Bowl and has played his entire career in New England.
Kyle Van Noy - Round 2, 2014 (BYU)
Scouts liked Van Noy’s athleticism, block-shedding ability and closing speed coming out of BYU. They felt he needed to improve his tackling ability and had average instincts. Van Noy was traded to the Patriots by the Lions in October of 2016 with a seventh-round pick in exchange for a sixth-rounder.
Rob Ninkovich - Round 5, 2006 (Purdue)
Ninkovich was said to have a very high motor and great technique through all facets of his game. Scouts felt Ninkovich lacked good size and speed. In August of 2009, Ninkovich signed a deal with the Patriots after spending his first three seasons with the Saints and the Dolphins, and he has been in New England ever since via multiple contract extensions.
Malcolm Butler - UDFA, 2014 (West Alabama)
Butler was undrafted in 2014 and quickly signed with the New England Patriots in May of that year. Coming out of West Alabama, scouts felt Butler had good cover technique and was quick to react to opposing receiver’s routes, but thought he lacked the speed to keep up with long-ball receivers. He was voted to the 2016 Pro Bowl and has been yet another draft steal for New England as its top corner.
Logan Ryan - Round 3, 2013 (Rutgers)
Ryan was praised for his technique in pass coverage, toughness in run support, ball skills and field awareness. Scouts felt he lacked flexibility and could lose his feet too easily at times. Ryan led all cornerbacks with 92 tackles in the 2016 season and has been an essential part of the Patriots' secondary handling the slot.
Eric Rowe - Round 2, 2015 (Utah)
Scouts loved Rowe's field awareness, physicality, ball skills and lateral quickness coming out of Utah in 2015. Rowe lacked good technique in coverage and needed to be further developed, which the Eagles did not seem interested in doing once Chip Kelly left town. He was traded to the Patriots in September of 2016 for a 2018 fourth-round pick.
Patrick Chung - Round 2, 2009 (Oregon)
Out of Oregon, Chung was praised for his physicality, tackling ability and lateral quickness. Scouts felt that his coverage ability and ball skills needed improvement. Chung was thought to be a more run-focused player when he joined New England in 2009. He signed with the Eagles for the 2013 season and returned to the Patriots in 2014.
Devin McCourty - Round 1, 2010 (Rutgers)
Scouts lauded McCourty for his athleticism, change-of-direction ability and instincts as a cornerback. He only had four career interceptions in college, which brought his ball skills into question. McCourty was voted to the 2011 and 2017 Pro Bowls and has 19 career interceptions in seven seasons, including 14 in his first three seasons when he played mostly cornerback.
Duron Harmon - Round 3, 2013 (Rutgers)
Scouts liked Harmon's athleticism, range and instincts. His run support was thought to be questionable. At the time of the draft, scouts and analysts widely projected Harmon as a seventh-round prospect, but New England jumped on him at No. 91 overall, betting on his intelligence and athletic ability more than most other teams and pundits did.
New England's Super Bowl LI victory continued its run as a dynasty in the 2000s. Of the 32 players profiled above as key contributors to this year's team, only five were first-round picks -- four of whom were drafted by the Patriots and four of whom play on defense. Over half of those impact players -- 18 total -- were drafted in the first three rounds of the draft, and Day 3 and UDFA steals like Brady, Blount, Edelman, Ninkovich and Butler were a big part of New England's 2016 core. The Patriots drafted 18 of these 32 players, while 14 came their way via trade or free agency.
A definite focus on defense appears as a theme, as the Patriots have drafted 25 defensive players and 17 offensive players since 2012. Twelve of the 18 players taken on Day 1 and Day 2 were on that side of the football, and two of the six offensive players were backup quarterbacks. Having a signal-caller like Brady definitely helps a team spend less draft capital on positions like running back and receiver, a spot where the Patriots have zero players drafted before Day 3 among their key contributors, although they've missed on a few second-day receivers in recent seasons.
In the end, New England has remained an elite organization thanks to its ability to unearth impact players outside of the top 100 picks. Hammering the trenches and the secondary with early picks is another trend we see here, and while the lack of first-rounders on the roster may surprise some, it goes to show how deep the NFL Draft is every season. Contributors are everywhere; it just seems like the Patriots do a better job of finding them and plugging them into their scheme successfully than the rest of the NFL.